Some believe Claddagh history began with the ancient Celts. The mythical Beathauile is said to represent the Crown. Dagda, father of the Celtic gods, represents the right hand of the Claddagh Ring. Anu, ancestral and universal mother of the Celts, represents the left hand. In a Christian version of this Irish legend, the crowned heart represents God the Father and the two hands signify Jesus and the Holy Spirit.
The Fisher Kings
Claddagh history merges with tales of the sea in the town of Claddagh, which is said to be one of the oldest fishing villages in Ireland. For centuries, fishermen from the area took to sea with the Claddagh crest on their ships and sails. The crest was used for identification – fishermen from outside the area fishing in their waters were chased away or killed. So the Claddagh is also an original symbol of the “Fisher Kings” of the Galway town of Claddagh, Ireland.
Conventional Wisdom – The Real Truth?
The most common – and most believable – tale of Claddagh history begins with a young man from Galway by the name of Richard Joyce leaving his true love to make his fortune in the West Indies. As he sailed toward his goal, his ship was captured by a band of pirates and he was sold as a slave to a Moorish goldsmith.
Through the many years of service to the goldsmith, Richard perfected the art of jewelry making himself, eventually becoming a master craftsman and earning the respect and admiration of his master. When King William III negotiated the freedom of the slaves in 1689, the Moor offered Richard the hand of his daughter and a healthy dowry on top of that. But Richard refused….for his heart still lay in Ireland.
Returning to Galway, Richard found that his sweetheart had remained true to him through all those years. In a fitting tribute to his true love, he fashioned the Claddagh ring. The two hands represented their friendship. The crown signified their loyalty. The heart symbolized their love. Richard wedded his beloved and presented the first Claddagh to her as her wedding ring. And the two lived happily ever after….never to be apart again.
This legend of Claddagh history is not entirely without basis. Indeed, the earliest examples of Claddagh rings bear Richard Joyce’s initials. So it makes sense that most scholars and everyday people believe the legend of Mr. Joyce to be the true origin of Claddagh history.
A dark chapter in Claddagh history, but one in which the Irish eventually triumphed, was the Great Famine in the mid-19th century. As thousands fled their beloved land to escape starvation, the Claddagh ring was often the only thing of value they owned. Sometimes it was their only inheritance and the only reminder they could keep of the land they loved.
As the Irish settled throughout the United States and Canada, the Claddagh ring and other jewelry bearing this symbol became a stunning testament to Erin and the proud heritage of her people all over the world. It became quite honorable to be a Claddagh ring bearer. In fact, it was the only ring Queen Victoria ever wore that was made in Ireland. Later Queen Alexandra and King Edward VII followed suit and became Claddagh ring bearer’s themselves..
Throughout Claddagh history, Claddagh rings and jewelry have been handed down from mother to daughter with the saying, “With these hands I give you my heart and I crown it with my love.”
Artist: Maxine Miller